Gene Gene the Dancing Machine, a regular in-house character on the zany, ridiculous quintessential slice of inane 1970s life game show The Gong Show, which was a brief and bizarre phenomenon in the annals of television, died in Pasadena, CA on Monday, according to the NY Daily News. He was 82.
The show regular — like The Unknown Comic on the show (who regularly told purposefully bad jokes with a cheap paper sack on his head, replete with badly cut out eye and mouth holes) — became iconic because of the sucked-you-in kind of surreal whimsy that the game show manifested in its heyday. The Gong Show was created by Chuck Barris, a deft creative producer who had already had massive success with similar prior programming like The Newlywed Game and The Dating Game, shows that exploited and celebrated in ribald and sometimes hilarious fashion the complexities of being in a relationship and not being in one, respectively.
By 1976, Barris developed an idea in which regular people would come on and perform “stunts” or “skills,” ranging from professional (singers, dancers, magic acts, comedians), to downright amateurish (singers, dancers, magic acts, comedians). Sometimes the more amateurish actually a stunt was, the more perverse appeal the audience would glean from it. A panel of three celebrity judges (usually Jamie Farr, Jaye P. Morgan, and Pat McMormick) would either let the contestant finish their stunt or skill and judge it, with the one with the highest score by the end of the show being the “winner,” or if someone on the panel or the audience couldn’t take just how awful the contestant was in what they were doing on stage, they would end the proceedings by clanging a huge gong, hence the title of the program. And this time, Barris hosted a show he created (save for a night time version in the first season helmed by the late voice over master Gary Owens), and his frizzled, grizzled, pint-sized curly bush of hair came through with full moxie-ridden aplomb like a impish ringmaster. America ate the program up, and during 1977 and 1978, it was one of the hottest shows on television.
And key components that became regular fixtures amidst the bizarre and sometimes desperate proceedings were comic relief situations like the aforementioned Unknown Comic, and that’s also where Gene Gene the Dancing Machine Came In.
Usually by the second or third lead-in to the commercial break, the strains of Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ At The Woodside” would start to usher its way in, and Barris would usually halt and freeze whatever he was doing, look square in the camera with a big grin, and revel that the Dancing Machine was about to make his entrance. And make his entrance he did, sashaying on stage, usually with the same one-two step, carnival atmosphere in full effect, stagehands off camera sometimes throwing foam props at him, Barris dancing chaotically on the side lines when the Basie number really starts to cook, and this would go on usually for a couple of seconds to a few minutes, always fading black to commercial. And that was it. And millions of Gong Show viewers couldn’t wait each week to see him. It’s an enigma as to why a silly, brain at the door, cool voyeuristic look at a cherubic man in a beret, mustachioed and dancing that same one-two step, was anticipated each week, but he was. It got to a point that during the show’s and Gene’s peak, you could hear the audience gasp in surprise when the piano notes of “Jumpin’ At The Woodside” were heard, signaling the triumphant and cool as the arctic entrance of newly anointed “superstar” Gene Gene the Dancing Machine.
Gene Patton, who was born in Berkeley, CA, on April 25, 1932, was a stagehand at NBC Television before he worked on The Gong Show, warming up the audiences. His act proved so popular, Barris put him on the air soon after the show premiered. Patton died from complications of diabetes on March 9th (he had lost both legs in 2001 because of complications from the disease). Another fallen iconic image from the colorful, expansive, and unforgettable decade that was the 1970s, the death of Gene Gene the Dancing Machine becomes another In Memoriam notch to our childhood memories.